(Serra connects with a right against Matt Hughes. Courtesy of Zuffa, LLC)
Joe Hall’s profile of Matt Serra originally appeared in the first issue of FIGHT! Magazine in Aug. 2007.
Matt Serra is in the moment. Those fifteen minutes of fame Warhol promised each of us? Serra’s stretching it. He’s taken the flash of his celebrity and frozen it.
I’m waiting for him this afternoon at his Jiu-Jitsu academy in Huntington, New York. This is Long Island, where Serra was raised and still lives. Banners drape the walls of his school. One of them declares Serra’s brand of the Brazilian art to be Jungle Jiu-Jitsu, and a pair of surly monkeys wearing blue gis stand alongside the words, glowering.
Despite the group of white and blue belts grappling on the mat, the school is relatively quiet, kind of hushed. Then a door swings open, and Serra enters shouting, “Ho! Hi-oh!”
Serra is loud. He is Long Island loud; he likes to joke and he likes to laugh. He’s short, only five-six, and he will joke about that, too. The guy is stout, but not physically imposing. His presence comes from his attitude. He commands attention. When he enters a room, you turn, you look, you listen. His students clap, and Serra hoots back at them.
“Hey guys!” he yells. “What’s up, guys! Come talk to me!”
I realize he’s yelling at me and the photographer. He brought the belt, the UFC welterweight title he won in April, for the photo shoot. Serra won the title in one of the greatest upsets in mixed martial arts history. He walked out to the Rocky music, stepped into the cage, and demolished the guy who was supposed to demolish him, Georges St-Pierre.
We move to the back of the school for the interview. Within minutes of sitting at his desk, however, he’s manning the phone. Calls have been steady since Serra won The Ultimate Fighter 4: The Comeback and then walked through St-Pierre. The popularity of mixed martial arts has exploded and Serra is suddenly at the forefront as a UFC champion. People want to train with him; they want to do what he’s done on Spike TV and pay-per-view. Already he has two academies: one here in Huntington, the other in East Meadow; four hundred students and growing.
After the call, he starts shouting again. “What’s up, guys! Are you going to make me look good? You can’t make me look bad,” he teases, “or you’ll look bad. I look good, you look good. You know what I mean, guys? Hey, feel this.”
He hands over the UFC title. It’s heavier than you would think. The black leather is a little slippery, and diamonds are nested in the gold.
“Listen to this,” he says. Typing on a computer, he summons an interview St-Pierre did with Toronto radio station FAN 590. The former champ is saying he shouldn’t have fought Serra because he was injured and hadn’t trained properly. Each comment prompts Serra to sling an index finger at the screen. “Wait, wait, wait, wait,” he says. “This is the best part.”
“If I was going to fight Matt Hughes,” says St Pierre through the speakers, “I would never have taken the fight. I told myself, ‘Oh, its Matt Serra. I can beat this guy easily.’”
Serra’s eyes flare. He curses at the computer, “Fu-uck you, guy!”
St-Pierre’s comments contradict what he said leading up to the fight – that he was 100 percent – and what he said while standing in the Octagon – that Serra was the better man that night, no excuses. More than a month has passed since the bout, and there’s a tension now where there wasn’t before. Serra retaliated yesterday, calling St-Pierre “a pathetic liar” in an interview with UFCmania.com.
Why is Serra so bothered? Maybe it is that extended moment he’s in; St- Pierre’s words pull him out of it, dismissing what happened in Houston as a fluke. Or maybe not.
“That guy,” Serra says, shaking his head. “I liked him.”
He’s playing the interview again now, setting the speakers on top of the counter and cranking the volume. Class is over, and several students have crowded around. Each one Serra sees warrants a shout of recognition, a knuckle-knock. “Hey!” he yells. “My man! Hey, listen to this.”
St-Pierre is saying again that he wouldn’t have fought if his opponent had been Hughes. Of course he also says fighting Serra was a mistake, but that doesn’t appease the man who beat him.
“Did you hear that, Dennis?” Serra asks one of his students.
Dennis shrugs. “Who’s that interview with?” he asks.
“Some Canadian press or somethin’.”
“Well, who’s gonna listen to that?”
The phone rings again. “Come on down, see how you like it,” Serra encourages.
“Take the Jiu-Jitsu for a little test drive.”
As soon as he hangs up, Serra swears St-Pierre has trained his last day at Renzo Gracie’s New York City Jiu-Jitsu academy. Serra is Renzo’s protégé. St Pierre was studying jiu-jitsu at the academy as recently as last week, and was welcome, but not anymore.
“That’s like me staying at your house and saying your wife cooks like shit and your dog stinks and I’ll be back in three weeks,” Serra says. “He’s out! You can’t go back to the house I helped build and talk shit like that.”
The conversation moves along, though more than once Serra steers it back to St-Pierre’s excuses. Eventually his anger cools. The school begins to clear out and the calls cease. Dennis is the last student to leave. “Hey, Matt,” he calls, stopping at the door. “Bring the belt back in some time for my boys? Get some pitchas?”
“Hey you got it.”
“All right. I’ll see ya then, Matt. You’ll never catch me talkin’ shit about ya on Canadian radio.”
Serra is ready for the shoot now. “All right, guys!” he whoops. “Ready! Let’s do it!”
When he learns that St. Pierre was planned for the cover, before their fight, he howls, “You serious? Ha! Take that Frenchy!”
The train’s whistle wails. Its wavering pitch plays off the walls of pine that line the tracks, but Serra doesn’t hear it. He’s asleep. The year is 1995, and he’s 21 years old. Every night he rides the Long Island Railroad into Manhattan. An hour into the city, and an hour home, just so he can train with Renzo Gracie.
For a living he works the graveyard shift as a security guard at Estée Lauder. The job’s embarrassing. He sits in a little guard booth. And the uniform, Jesus. Clip-on tie, fake badge. But mostly he hates that fucking guard booth.
He’s off at eight in the morning. Gets some sleep, then back to the city for training, then back to the booth by midnight. But the training is incredible, and that’s why he’s willing to sit in the booth all night just for a few hours on the mat in Manhattan. A few hours with Renzo, who’s become his mentor, who’s become family. What Serra learns from Renzo he takes to his garage in East Meadow, and he drills it, over and over, with his brothers.
He has been riding the train to Manhattan since he was 19. His Jiu-Jitsu has become very good very quickly, but he is wearing down. He has a girl, one that he’s dated since he was 16, almost six years. She doesn’t like him sitting in the guard booth instead of going to school or working a real job, and her parents don’t like it either. He’s wearing down on the mat, too. One day, Renzo pulls Serra aside and says, “Look. You’re training like shit because you’re tired. You’re tired because you’re up all night in that booth. Quit. Work for me.”
Work for Renzo? Are you kidding? So Serra quits his security gig and starts teaching Jiu-Jitsu for a living. He tosses that tie in the garbage because of Renzo. Renzo got him out of the booth.
“Matt ‘The Terror’ Serra, is he in here?” asks a man poking his head into Serra’s school.
Serra is pacing in the back, his cell phone at his ear. Now he is speaking with someone involved with The Ultimate Fighter. He’ll be coaching the next season opposite Matt Hughes.
“The guy’s a prick,” Serra says of Hughes. “I’ll tell him to go fuck himself, so get your bleepers ready.”
“Hey, is that the belt?” asks the man, stepping inside. “Can I get a picture?”
“I’m not puttin’ up with Matt Hughes’ shit,” Serra says into his phone.
He films season six of The Ultimate Fighter in a few weeks. In the meantime, he’s getting married. After a honeymoon in Aruba, he has a day to repack his suitcase and fly to Vegas for the show. That’s life at the moment – chaotic. He’s moving too, buying a new house in a nicer Long Island neighborhood. Today’s a photo shoot, tomorrow an autograph session in Atlantic City, next week The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.
It wasn’t always like this. Serra was 4-4 in the UFC, his last bout a decisive loss, when he got the call. He was content running his Jiu-Jitsu schools. He liked to fight, but he wasn’t after a belt or anything. “We might have a good opportunity for you,” said Joe Silva, the UFC matchmaker. “It’s called The Comeback.”
Serra wasn’t sure he’d win The Ultimate Fighter 4, but the special season of the Spike TV reality show, featuring UFC vets instead of newcomers, would provide plenty of free advertising for his schools. He won, of course. His reward was a title shot, and he won that too.
That is why the belt is in Long Island today. The man wanting a picture of it has snapped a few. Two girls have joined the scene, along with another man. He’s big, at least six-three and 230 pounds and dressed all in black. One of the girls is getting a picture with the title, and the guys are elbowing each other, arguing over which of them will ask if they can get a picture as well.
Serra strolls over, shouting, “Hey! How are you? Good to see you!” Maybe he knows them. I’d swear he doesn’t, but he acts like he knows everyone. He poses for pictures, chats.
“I wanna be a ring girl,” one of the girls tells him.
Serra answers with his palms out. “Hey, who am I, Dana White now?”
“Matt, what can you do with these two?” the other girl asks. She motions at the guys. She wants them trained, she’s suggested already, to fight.
“What do you mean?” Serra says.
“They wanna be ring girls, too?”
The big guy in black leaps onto the mat, hands raised, squatting in a strange stance no one’s ever fought from. He is clearly joking, but Serra might kick his ass anyway, for the poor humor if nothing else. Serra spares him, posing for another picture instead.
When the fans finally exit, the real photo shoot begins. It is just Serra now, the lights aimed at him alone against the backdrop. The camera is connected to a computer, and each picture materializes on the screen within seconds. You hear a little boom, the flash, then an instant later there he is, Serra on screen with a gold belt around his waist.
They say he won’t have the title long. First defense, some experts say, he’ll hand it right over. It’s true that even as champion he will be the underdog against the top tier of UFC welterweights.
The shoot breaks. Serra checks out the most recent photo on the computer. The camera had caught him between poses, his face frozen awkwardly. “Well,” he says, “they can’t all be gems. Not gonna sell many magazines with that pitcha.”
When the shoot resumes, he squares his jaw and glares through the next series of shots. He cuts up when the camera stops clicking. “Don’t make me fuckin’ laugh,” he says, reigning in a grin.
At one point, while shifting the title from his waist to his shoulder, the belt slips out of his hands. He has been oiled for the shoot, and the oil slicked the leather. The title hits the floor with a heavy clatter. Serra’s face tightens into a pissed-off expression, and he picks up the belt. Carefully, he positions it over his shoulder. After a long fifteen seconds or so, he is grinning again.
A spinning backfist, like a Bruce Lee movie. That’s what got him, and twice at that. Twice! And the second time, the second time there were only nine seconds left in the fight, and the fight was his. Fucking Shonie Carter and that spinning backfist.
Serra’s brother, Nick, is telling him not to worry about it. They are driving back from Atlantic City in May 2001, where Serra was knocked out the night before in his UFC debut. A few weeks earlier Serra had solidified himself as one of the best grapplers in the world. He went to Abu Dhabi and cleaned out his division at the World Submission Wrestling Championships. Not much more for him to do in grappling.
Nick’s saying the fight was a thriller. None of Serra’s previous bouts had gone more than three minutes. This one went fifteen, and it was on pay-per-view. Yes, he lost to that spinning backfist. But had anyone showed a submission game like his before in a fight? Had anyone ever thrown an omoplata shoulder lock? Chained it to a triangle choke? Chained the choke to an armbar?
Serra is disappointed, but the sting doesn’t hurt that much. It’s just a little bite, and the pain is already leaving. It doesn’t hurt much at all, and Serra knows something else is happening here. That fight was a war, Nick’s saying.
“Yeah,” Serra replies. “I had a war. I never had a war before, Nicky.”
Serra enters a local restaurant the same way he entered his academy. “Ho!” he howls. “Hi-oh!”
He orders ostrich. It comes served on a bed of yellow rice. “That fight,” he says, stabbing at a piece of meat. “That fight against Yves Edwards I had to win.”
Edwards was his second UFC bout, and he needed the winner’s purse to open his first school. He opened the academy in his hometown, East Meadow. Joe Rogan visited once and found Serra living in the basement.
“This is where you live?” Rogan asked, seeing just a bed, a sink, and a television.
“I was never late for class,” Serra says between bites. “So what if it was old 1970s Kung Fu-style shit? So what if I was 28 and living in the basement of my school?”
I ask what happened with the girl he dated from the time he was 16 to 22, while he was working in the guard booth and taking the train into Manhattan.
“Her? One day she said to me, she said,” here Serra heightens his pitch to simulate the girl’s, “’I know you like your judo stuff, but my parents worry about you not going to college.’ And I said to her, ‘Judo? Judo stuff? Its Jiu-Jitsu, bitch!’”
No doubt, he can deliver a line. “Now,” he says, “I just hope she has Spike TV.”
The spotlight doesn’t scare Serra. In its glow, he is quickwitted and comfortable, a natural. “I’m giving you some gems, ain’t I?” he says. “I’m giving you some gems. Hey could you hold on a minute? Sorry.”
Someone is calling. “What’s up, buddy?” Serra shouts into his phone. “You got your tux? All right, buddy. Look, I don’t want to sound like Mr. Fancy Pants here, but I’m doin’ an interview.”
Seems as if he’s always doing an interview these days. Mixed results followed the win over Edwards, but The Ultimate Fighter was a relaunch. He avenged the loss to Shonie Carter, eating another spinning backfist but staying conscious this time, then edging out Chris Lytle via split decision in the season finale. Suddenly he was a title contender. It was incredible, except no way in hell was he beating St-Pierre, the man who had mowed down Matt Hughes, who had beaten B.J. Penn, who had stopped Sean Sherk, and Frank Trigg, and nearly everyone else he had fought. But hey, everyone was saying, it was a nice run. Got some free advertising, got to fight for the title. You can tell the kids about it some day, but really it was pointless to board the plane to Houston and stand across from St-Pierre and act as if you can beat that guy.
Everyone knew his only chance was to score a takedown and search for a submission. Serra’s striking had always been mediocre. His strategy had always been the same; get the fight to the ground. But during his training camp, Serra realized that wouldn’t work. St- Pierre had shucked off Matt Hughes’s takedowns, for Christ’s sake. Wrestling with him would leave Serra exhausted, beaten.
“I’m not taking him down,” he decided. “I’m standin’ up with him.”
So he trained to batter St-Pierre’s body, then to take off his head when his hands dropped. He thought it would take longer than three and a half minutes.
“I did what I had to do,” Serra says. “I beat him up.”
But what if he hadn’t? What if he’d lost? What if there had been no reality show, no title shot, no comeback?
“I’d still be content. I’d still be livin’ the dream,” he answers quickly. He shrugs. He stabs the last bite, chews it. “Not as content as I am now, though.”
Now Serra’s set. He has already made a nice chunk of change, and he will make plenty more for his first title defense, a showdown with Hughes after The Ultimate Fighter 6. The phones at his schools won’t stop ringing anytime soon, either. That is why the critics barking about him losing his first title defense miss the point.
“What’s gonna happen?” he asks. “I’m gonna lose some skin? Take a nap? Either way, I ain’t goin’ back to that guard booth.” He’s unafraid to lose because he wasn’t supposed to win in the first place. But don’t call what he did a fluke. Upset, yes. Fluke, no. Watch the fight again, and you’ll see. Watch Serra’s face as he walks to the cage. He’s smiling. Fighters smile sometimes on the way in. Sometimes the smile looks contrived, sometimes distant and sinister. No one grins his way to the cage knowing he’s in for an ass whipping, though. So watch Serra walk in. His smile, which extends from ear to ear, says something else. He knows something we don’t: he knows he’s walking into the moment.